The terrorist mass murder committed in Paris on November 13 warrants a decisive foreign policy reaction from France and its European partners. Most political leaders and commentators in Europe seem to agree that the attacks are not just a homeland security matter but also one with immediate relevance for Europe’s external affairs. But what happened that night in Paris has hit a continent that stands empty-handed in the face of the big foreign policy challenge posed by the self-styled Islamic State and other Islamist groups.

The problems start with what seems to be the easiest of things, air strikes. France duly conducted a few bombing runs against Islamic State targets in Syria’s Raqqa province. These strikes might even have inflicted some damage on the group’s military infrastructure, but in reality they were largely symbolic. France needed to demonstrate that it was willing and able to strike, and that the perpetrators should not feel too safe in their hideouts in the Middle East.

However, the real value of these strikes is negligible. A much larger bombing campaign against the Islamic State has been going on for months, with rather limited impact. Additional French firepower in this campaign is useful and welcome, but it won’t turn a halfhearted campaign into a military success. Most other European countries are absent from the operation.

But even if more countries joined in, the net effect would be limited, as airpower alone is incapable of delivering the outcome that would make a difference: diminishing the foothold that the Islamic State has established in the Syrian and Iraqi lands it has occupied. That could be achieved only through a massive military buildup, including a significant number of ground troops. No one in Europe wants this. And even if the Europeans did want it, there is very little they could deploy. The options would be limited even if the political will and public support existed, which is not the case.

A serious military operation could really only be conducted in alliance with the United States, a country staunchly opposed to any armed entanglement on the ground in the region. For the military protection of their interests, Europeans still rely on the Americans to come to their aid. When the United States is unwilling to commit itself, Europe is militarily paralyzed.

As a consequence, the strong military reaction that some in the foreign policy red meat department seem to favor is nothing more than a chimera. But that’s probably not such a bad thing. Not just because European—and, indeed, Western—interventions have not been awfully successful in recent years, to say the least. But also because nobody in Europe seems able to define the political goal that going to war would serve. Without a political goal, military operations are pointless, prone to mission creep, and bound to backfire, as not only readers of Clausewitz will know.

This conceptual shortcoming is a problem when it comes to thinking about military options. It is a catastrophe when it comes to finding a political solution, which is what really counts.

When the US is unwilling to commit itself, Europe is militarily paralyzed.
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Europeans have no appetite for extended state building as in Afghanistan. Nor do they have, besides lofty generalizations, any idea of what kind of Middle East they would like to bring about. The EU’s European Neighborhood Policy not only failed because of unwilling regional elites. It also had no clear concept of a new and sustainable political order in the region, absorbed itself in technical approaches to political problems, and did not match its stated objectives with nearly sufficient means to create even moderate results.

With no political idea, no transformative power, and no military might, no strong foreign policy is to be had. So the noise made by political leaders in Europe is most likely just that: noise.

The result will be that politicians who can’t deliver on foreign policy will demonstrate great eagerness to make up for it by being extra tough at home. Homeland security will be all the rage in Europe in the coming months and years. Much of it will be necessary and useful. Some of it will go too far, potentially damaging the rule of law and civil freedoms. Europeans will face the age-old dilemma that he who sets out to protect freedom is often the one who damages it the most. But who can pull off such a fine balancing act in a time of rage?

The other result will be a Europe waiting for the United States. Europeans will do in the Middle East what they have done there for at least a generation, if not longer: follow the Americans. They will do very little as long as Washington shows little interest. They will follow U.S. diplomatic leadership, as was the case during the November 14 talks in Vienna on peace in Syria. And they will follow, at least partly, if the United States decides that military power needs to be used to make progress.

If the United States is a lesser power these days, the EU is an even lesser one.
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The European Union and its member states remain derivative foreign policy powers in the Middle East. The EU derives its power in the region from the United States. In its own right, the union has very little capacity to create foreign policy outcomes. If the United States is a lesser power these days, the EU is an even lesser one.

This is a dangerous position to be in. First, because it is always uncomfortable to depend on someone else’s whims. Second, because it leaves Europeans no other option than to follow the U.S. lead, even when that lead is disastrous, as it was in Iraq.

To sum it up, contrary to the strong words of politicians after the Paris attacks, nothing much is going to change in Europe’s foreign policy vis-à-vis the Middle East. Nobody has the actual or the political capital and the strategic savvy to pull off a more activist role for Europe. The post-Paris noise makers will look silly. The Islamic State will rejoice. Local potentates will continue to wage war against their own populations. The next terrorist attack will come. And then the discussion will start all over again.